As much as I struggle to get out of bed when it’s still dark outside, the spring turkey hunting season reminds me that waking up TOO early invariably is worth the effort.
Maybe we should take a cue from birds and animals, with their unbounded enthusiasm for the break of day. A white-tailed deer – only its white flag visible in the half-light – bounds away from the human intruder stumbling along the woods-edge path.
With only the slightest hint of gray in the east, the field sparrows and robins already have started their wake-up calls to the rest of woodland community. The Sibley field guide describes the field sparrow’s song as “an accelerating series of soft sweet whistles . . .” The repetitive robins sing their musical phrases over and over – especially when they’re greeting the dawn.
Do these little birds wake up the turkeys – or is it vice versa? No matter. The booming gobbles of a half-dozen Toms echo over the river valley in answer to hens’ seductive yelps.
Off in the distance, barred owls trade questioning hoots: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
A titmouse joyously sings “Peter-Peter-Peter!” A pileated woodpecker defines his territory with drum-like pounding on a hollow tree trunk. The red-bellied woodpecker can’t match the booming of his larger cousin, but his more subtle yet incessant “tap-tap-tap-taps” warn any rivals to keep their distance.
As the pink of sunrise tickles the treetops, the crows begin scolding. Predictably, the old toms gobble an answer, looking for any excuse to brag about their virility.
The cardinal brags, too. “Cheer! Cheer! Cheer!” he sings from a treetop. A pheasant crows from the neighbor’s grassy field. Canada geese cruise up and down the river, honking noisily.
You’re less than thrilled to hear the gurgles of a flock of cowbirds. The pesky parasites soon will be looking for others birds’ nests in which to lay their eggs, crowding out the rightful owners.
Despite your bias against some of the musicians, you delight in the dawn symphony. A chipping sparrow’s “chip-chip-chip-chip” makes up in determination what it lacks in originality. A blue jay first scolds “jay!” then reverts to his two-part call often described as the squeak of a rusty pump handle. A high-pitched rattle betrays the downy woodpecker, hidden behind the dead elm.
A female bluebird softly chortles from a perch just above your head, then graciously accepts an insect breakfast tidbit offered by her mate.
Silently, a great blue heron soars high above the performance, wisely deciding not to interrupt with the only “squawwwwk” a heron can muster.
The brown thrasher, in contrast, is so impressed with his own musical prowess that he perches atop the highest tree, repeating each phrase to be sure we don’t miss a note.
The chattering song sparrow tries not to repeat, other than weaving in a regular “tea-kettle” to its diverse repertoire.
Even with the background music, your mind wanders to the other joys of the spring woods. Spring beauties, bloodroots, false rue anemones, and Dutchman’s breeches are in full bloom. A few hepaticas linger on cooler slopes. Bellworts, anemones, wild ginger, and squirrel corn have sprouted their first flowers. The gooseberry leaves are unfurling, and the wild plum buds show just a hint of white petals.
You’re startled back to the moment by a great cackling and yelping and gobbling and putting in the nearby woods. The turkey tribe is working its way up the hill. Have they actually fallen for the ruse of your motley decoys and your laughable attempts to sound like a lovesick hen?
As a pair of strutting toms ambles closer and closer, you almost lament their gullibility. It took a hunting license to give you the incentive to attend the eventful early-morning recital. But the day has been such a success that you can’t wait for the next too-early morning – when your only license is one to simply savor the sights and sounds of April in Iowa.